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Pro bono: Kimberley calling

Every Issue

Cite as: December 2013 87 (12) LIJ, p.80

Sharing skills with local organisations in remote Indigenous communities is an opportunity to learn. 

Pro bono work does not typically come with instructions to close your laptop for the first week. Nor, for Victorian practitioners, does it usually take place in a remote landscape of red dust and boab trees.

Yet this is the reality for a program that partners organisations working with local Indigenous communities and employees from Australia’s major businesses and law firms.

Jawun is a not-for-profit organisation that channels corporate and philanthropic resources into Indigenous development across Australian regions from Cape York to the Kimberley. It seconds employees from corporate partners into local organisations, matching their skills to a project for six weeks. Secondees share knowledge and expertise with a group working to improve economic and social outcomes for remote Indigenous communities.

Herbert Smith Freehills is one such partner that offers its employees the chance to participate. A key aspect of the firm’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) is that all members of society should have equal access to opportunity and justice. Partnering with Jawun is, however, also a recognition of the value of practical reconciliation.

After an intense application process, I was selected to work in the East Kimberley, Western Australia on a Jawun secondment in August-September 2013. The region is roughly the size of Victoria but with a population of about 12,000 people.

Based in Kununurra, a town more than 1000 kilometres from Broome and 800 kilometres from Darwin, I was seconded to East Kimberley Job Pathways (EKJP). This local organisation provides employment services and training opportunities across the East Kimberley and Halls Creek/Tjurabalan regions.

A joint venture between two local organisations, Wunan Foundation and East Kimberley Community Development Employment Projects, EKJP opened its doors on 1 July 2013 to deliver the federal government’s Remote Jobs and Communities Program. Employment is a key focus in the region to help Indigenous people achieve goals through ability, opportunity and effort.

Working with the CEO Sandra Mitchell, I reviewed and developed EKJP’s employment and human resources framework. As a corporate lawyer specialising in employment law, much of the work was familiar. However it was a fresh experience to develop the building blocks of a new entity, mindful of the needs and aims of an organisation that works with people of varying literacy levels across a vast and remote region.

Ways of working also differed. EKJP has offices across the region from the town of Halls Creek on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert to the communities of Warmun and Kalumburu. Visiting a local office could mean an eight hour drive through Miriuwung, Gajerrong, Gija or Djaru country or a chartered flight, and borrowing the work car might mean driving a “troopy” or troop carrier. Consultation might involve a yarn at an outbuilding or visiting the art centre where local Indigenous women create paintings as part of the remote jobs and communities program.

At EKJP, a moment of pride for the fledgling organisation occurred when Celeste Hunter, a Kimberley woman and executive assistant to the CEO, was named employee of the year at the East Kimberley Aboriginal Achievement Awards in September 2013.

Listening, engaging and taking the time to understand the environment in which you are working, from the operational to the physical and historical, was critical. Needs of an organisation may vary and ways to approach solutions may differ from conventional practices in urban, corporate Australia. Yet the mutual sharing of knowledge offers an opportunity to make a genuine difference in a space where Indigenous leadership and innovation is promoted. The chance to use our skillset while developing a greater understanding of the culture and values of Indigenous people is also immeasurable.

You leave the East Kimberley with a recognition of the enormous challenges facing the region and a deep respect for those working for change. I was fortunate to see first hand the quiet but powerful work of leaders such as Ian Trust, local Gija man and Wunan chairman and executive director, and the optimistic, persistent work of their teams to improve the lives of Indigenous people in the region with a focus on sustainable change.

Today, pro bono matters reflect the changing nature of work in the legal profession. Here, there is a focus on practical engagement and calling upon your abilities as a practitioner at a grassroots level. In a global environment with an increasing emphasis on cross cultural awareness and understanding, this approach will only continue to grow in importance.



SARA SUMMERBELL is a senior associate at Herbert Smith Freehills.

Looking to help?

To help lawyers and firms become involved in pro bono work – legal services and otherwise – the LIJ profiles a community group and its needs each month.

AED Legal Group

Contact: Joanna Cantwell

Email: mail@goodcompany.com.au

The main objective of the Association of Employees with Disability Inc. (AED) Legal Centre is to protect and advance the rights of people with a disability who experience difficulties in employment or education because of their disability. AED believes in the equal right to a quality education for children with a disability in primary, secondary and tertiary settings and gives priority to cases involving students who experience exclusion or discrimination in accessing or participating in education.

Current needs of group:

Volunteer paralegal skills are needed for the group. The paralegal works under the direction and supervision of the principal legal practitioner to perform duties including: helping with intake of new clients, telephone, mail and email, preparation of some court documentation, photocopying, maintenance of AED legal clients database, maintenance of legal files and client lists, and taking notes during meetings.

goodcompany:

See www.goodcompany.com.au for more skilled volunteering opportunities. For more information about volunteering in general see www.volunteeringaustralia.org and www.ourcommunity.com.au.

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